Shakespeare vs. Shakespeare: Introduction to the Authorship Controversy


Who wrote the works of Shakespeare?

Even asking this question is bound to exasperate professional Shakespearean scholars, who uniformly dismiss any talk of an authorship controversy as the work of cranks, crackpots, and reckless amateurs. Still, for two centuries or more some people have persisted in raising doubts about the identity of the world's greatest writer. Most frequently the doubters allege that the name "William Shakespeare" was an alias, a cover for someone in the aristocracy who could not afford to be known as a writer of commercial entertainment. Among "men of rank," publishing pious religious tracts or didactic works was acceptable, but penning plays for the public stage was something that simply was not done -- at least not openly.

Of course, doubt in itself proves nothing, and the scholars may be right in dismissing all such arguments. Still, there are a few things that stick in my craw whenever I try to convince myself that the man from Stratford was the author of The Works.

First, there are Shakespeare's signatures. Six have survived, all appended to legal documents. When compared with the signatures of other writers of the same period, Shakespeare's autograph is unimpressive. In Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography, Diana Price publishes the signatures of Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, and George Peele. All signed their names in a graceful, flowing hand, displaying the skillful penmanship that one would expect of a person whose business is the written word. The same is true of Shakespeare's rival, Christopher Marlowe.


Christopher Marlowe's signature


Ben Jonson's signature


the six generally accepted signatures of Shakespeare

Shakespeare's signatures, by contrast, are much less attractive. Some who have studied them say that the letters were scratched out one at a time. "Shakspere's six signatures," writes Price, "are spelled differently, one is incomplete, and two are blotted ... He had such difficulty finishing his own name that some biographers account for the scrawls by postulating ill health. ... Shakspere's shabby handwriting compares unfavorably with specimens left by his contemporaries. ... Even their messier or harder-to-read handwriting reveals some facility with the pen, whereas Shakspere's signatures suggest discomfort." This is not to say Shakespeare was illiterate, but in Elizabethan days it was entirely possible for a man to learn to read without learning more than the rudiments of writing. Price: "At the least, shaky penmanship is an odd characteristic to find in a professional writer, but it could be expected of someone with perhaps six years of schooling. If Shakspere attended grammar school for five or six years, his reading and oral skills would have exceeded his writing skills, as handwriting was not included in most curricula."

Admittedly, people have been arguing about these signatures for two hundred years, and nothing about the debate is simple. For instance, Price's argument that one of Shakespeare's signatures is "incomplete" may overlook the fact that the signature in question was written on a ribbon attached to a wax seal. The width of the ribbon, rather than any difficulty in writing, may have forced Shakespeare to abbreviate his signature.


Shakespeare's signature on a ribbon (from the British Museum collection at

There are those who insist that the signatures were made by law clerks and not by Shakespeare at all. (Examples of such arguments are foundhere and here.) Orthodox scholar David Kathman finds nothing wrong in the signatures, seeing them as "entirely typical examples of the Elizabethan secretary hand." One of the doubters, John Baker, vigorously disputes Kathman's expertise in this area. Perhaps it takes an expert to weigh in on this topic -- but even the experts disagree.

I can only say that, to me, there is a marked difference between Marlowe's and Jonson's signatures and those attributed to Shakespeare -- and the comparison does not work to Shakespeare's advantage.

Other than the six signatures, nothing in Shakespeare's hand has come down to us -- or at least nothing we can be sure of. Arguments have been made for a seventh signature inscribed in a law book, and for three handwritten pages of a play about Thomas More, but no consensus has been reached. Certainly there are no letters by Shakespeare, no journals, no "foul papers" (rough drafts) of his plays, no literary materials of any kind. One letter exists that was written to Shakespeare, requesting a loan (the letter was never sent). This is all the correspondence that survives.

In the minds of the doubters, both the signatures and the dearth of other written materials raise the question of whether Shakespeare had the technical facility in writing that we would expect of a prolific author. Another document is thought to raise questions about Shakespeare's character. In 1596, an official complaint was sworn out by William Wayte against Shakespeare, Francis Langley, and two women, stating that Shakespeare and his three associates had placed Wayte in "fear of death." In other words, Wayte is asserting that Shakespeare, Langley, and the women threatened or assaulted him.

It's instructive to see how Langley is characterized by orthodox scholars and doubters. One of the doubters, John Michell, author of Who Wrote Shakespeare?, presents Langley as an unscrupulous crime lord. The women named in the complaint are said to be prostitutes, and Shakespeare himself is nominated as Langley's enforcer -- a guy who broke kneecaps. Michell, noting that William Wayte was another crime figure, postulates a turf war between rival criminal gangs, with Shakespeare as a party to a violent showdown. Diana Price, while not quite so heated, summarizes Langley's career as "a litany of unscrupulous activities, greed, and extortion," and says Shakespeare "was not keeping good company" when the two men were together.

In contrast, orthodox authorities generally minimize Langley's negative qualities, while placing the onus of blame on Wayte. Ian Wilson inShakespeare: The Evidence describes Wayte as "a bully boy" whose grievance "almost certainly ... was that he had met resistance from Shakespeare and his three associates when trying to enforce a theatre closure notice." Conversely, he describes Langley in neutral terms as the "builder and owner of the Swan Theatre." The impression is left of a ruffian (Wayte) making false charges against an honest businessman (Langley) who was merely trying to protect his interests.

There is only one biography of Langley, A London Life in the Brazen Age, by William Ingram. It shows that whatever roles Langley may have played in his life, the role of honest businessman was not one of them.

According to Ingram, Langley started out as a moneylender, sticking to the legally approved interest rate of ten percent while adding other off-the-books "considerations" to the deal. The money in question was typically not his own; instead, he acted as a middleman between debtors and monied interests. Often, Langley arranged matters to bankrupt the debtor, while ensuring his own profit. The deals were skillfully designed to fleece the gullible without quite overstepping the bounds of the law.

The common practice of moneylenders -- and the popular attitude toward them -- is presented in Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta (Act II, sc. iii, 195-203), when the title character expounds on his career in usury:

 Then after that was I an usurer,

And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,

And tricks belonging unto brokery,

I fill'd the jails with bankrouts in a year,

And with young orphans planted hospitals;

And every moon made some or other mad,

And now and then one hang himself for grief,

Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll

How I with interest tormented him.

Marlowe's depiction is exaggerated, but not by much. In The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl reports the case of a "gullible young heir" who, victimized in a complicated series of frauds, ended up signing a bond for sixty pounds while receiving only thirty pounds in exchange -- "a loan," Nicholl dryly notes, "at 100 per cent interest." We may assume that Langley was no more scrupulous than his competitors in his moneylending activities.

Langley also worked at a government post as an "alnager," or inspector of cloth. Some further idea of his character may be derived from a 1598 court proceeding against Langley and his fellow alnagers.

Ingram writes, "The alnagers, [charged attorney general Edward Coke,] were in the habit of lying in wait 'in the high streets of the said City' where they regularly 'assaulted your Majesty's said clothiers, and unless your said subjects would forthwith give them great and large sums,' the alnagers would follow the clothmakers to 'their usual unloading places within the said City,' and had often 'beaten, maimed and wounded divers of your Majesty's said loving subjects,' killed or maimed their horses and 'taken their packs from off their horses and carried them into strange places and houses, pretending there to search and view the same.' The alnagers had also regularly 'taken and received of your Highness' subjects ... several sums of money ... pretending to take the same for the viewing, searching, trying and sealing' of their cloths brought to market, 'but in truth without viewing, searching, trying or sealing of the same cloths.' "

The cloth merchants themselves also had their say.

"Robert Colbourne affirmed that the alnagers 'used to watch carriers and clothiers coming to London for sale of their cloths.' They were so relentless in this practice that 'no carrier or clothier could come to the City by night or day but there were spies deputed by them lying continually in taverns or alehouses to watch them.' Colbourne himself 'was enforced always to come very late in the night for fear of them, and many times at one o'clock at night to give the porters at the gate sometimes three d, sometimes four d [i.e., three or four pence], to let him in.'

"Jerome Burman affirmed that the alnagers 'have used forcible means against divers carriers ... and that there have passed blows betwixt them and the carriers.' William Bradley declared that George Martin, one of the alnagers, had stayed the horses of one Nelson and tried to unload them, 'whereupon there was a fray, and much blood was drawn, in so much that it grew to a great disorder.' Martin and his fellows pursued Nelson to his inn ... and there, 'assisted by two of the Lord Mayor's officers,' they 'violently did break open the door of a chamber and committed a great outrage.'

"John Curtis claimed that 'about Christmas last, Langley, one of the defendants, with four or five other [sic], came to this deponent in a street near Aldgate leading towards the Tower, and there violently in the open street took from off one of the horses of this deponent a pack of cloths ... and saith further that within one month after, the said Langley, with six or seven in his company, did in the same place in the open street violently take from him six other cloths.' Thomas Giles said that 'in Lent last or thereabouts the said Langley and Chapman came into the White Hart without Bishopsgate, where this deponent was, and there, with a crow[bar] of iron, broke in this deponent's warehouse door there and took away certain cloths which this deponent brought of his neighbors, and did cut the lines of other packs which they had nothing to do with; and another time before, they came and broke open this deponent's chamber door where he lay and fetched out the cloths that were there and carried them away.'

"Henry Petteward remembered that 'in June 1596 Langley and Chapman broke the chamber door, being locked, where this deponent had eleven cloths, which they carried away to their office, and before he could have them again they had of him eight pounds.' But door-smashing [Ingram continues] was not the worst of their offenses. Henry Vintner claimed that 'upon the eighth day of March last they took from this deponent's servant one pack of cloths, packcloth and all, about ten of the clock in the night within Aldgate, cutting the wantle rope and putting his servant in danger of his life, smiting him with naked swords and halberds, and bound him and robbed him and took away his purse and his money.' Joseph Alston and Thomas Hammond came into the City together, and Alston recalled that Langley and his fellows 'came upon them most violently, and one of them with a sword cut this deponent's head through his hat, and if Hammond had not been by and borne off the blow with his whip and his cloak, it is very like this deponent had been slain.' "

Ingram concludes, "The alnagers were found guilty of gross abuse of their office and were severally fined." A crackdown on the alnagers' corruption followed. Perhaps because he couldn't line his pockets anymore, Langley lost interest in the position and stopped showing up for work. He was eventually removed from office.

So here we have Francis Langley -- a man who would lie in ambush for unsuspecting clothiers and steal their goods, beating them, stabbing them, killing their horses -- a man who ran a modest network of spies -- a man who broke down hotel-room doors to confiscate any wares he'd been unable to steal on the street. A man of subterfuge and violence, skilled in intimidation and extortion. He is certainly more than merely the "builder and owner of the Swan Theater," as Ian Wilson would have it.

Orthodox authorities often claim, without evidence, that William Wayte's complaint against Langley and Shakespeare was a nuisance tactic, and that Wayte was never actually "in fear of death." But when we see the actions Langley committed under cover of his official government duties, is it so hard to believe that Wayte felt threatened -- or actually was attacked? According to sworn testimony just two years later, Langley and his cohorts had "beaten, maimed and wounded" innocent merchants, so that "much blood was drawn." They had smashed doors, stolen goods, and put a man "in danger of his life, smiting him with naked swords and halberds," and cut another man's "head through his hat" and nearly killed him. Why, then, should we assume that Langley was any less serious when he threatened -- or assaulted -- William Wayte?

More important, why should we exonerate Shakespeare, who was with Langley at the time and is, in fact, named first in the complaint? Langley's other misdeeds were usually not committed alone. He was "assisted by two of the Lord Mayor's officers" ... or was seen with "four or five other" persons ... or "with six or seven in his company" ... or with "his fellows."

Was Shakespeare one of Langley's "fellows"? Had he participated in bloody street brawls and hotel raids? Was he no better than a common hoodlum?

The orthodox say no. Even Ingram, Langley's biographer, shrinks from the suggestion. "That [Wayte] might have been genuinely afraid of Langley is quite possible; but I have my doubts about the 'fear of death' likely to be engendered by two women, or by a player [Shakespeare] generally characterized by his friends as 'gentle.'"

This statement encapsulates a common error -- ascribing epithets to Shakespeare the man that actually apply only to his work. E.A.J. Honigmann writes, "Such allusions to a writer's style tell us no more about his personality than in the case of Sir Nicholas Bacon of whose 'sweet and sugred eloquence' we hear in 1585. It was a hackneyed formula, used of many others ... All the allusions to 'sweet' Shakespeare recorded in his life-time refer back to his 'vein,' or poetic style" (Honigmann, Shakespeare's Impact on His Contemporaries, quoted by Price).

Diana Price says that Ben Jonson was the first person to use the adjective "gentle" to describe Shakespeare in print. This was in the prefatory material of the Folio in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. She notes, "The epithet has stuck. Biographers have routinely used this adjective to construct Shakespeare's gentle-mannered reputation." She quotes Ian Donaldson: "Thus launched into the critical vocabulary, the word 'gentle' recurs repeatedly in later tributes to Shakespeare and forms an important ingredient in the eighteenth-century concoction of the dramatist's personality." Like "sweet," the adjective "gentle" may have been used in reference to Shakespeare's literary style -- as in Jonson's own journal, where he praised Shakespeare's "excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions."

So there is no reason to think that Shakespeare was actually "gentle" or "sweet" in his disposition. And if the Stratford man was not sweet or gentle? If he was a ruffian, a small-time criminal participating in midnight skirmishes?

Genius can wear baffling disguises, but I think it's fair to say that a Shakespeare who was Langley's "hired muscle," his goon, is not a Shakespeare we can imagine writing the poems and plays that bear his name. William Wayte's compaint poses a serious challenge to orthodox authorities -- a challenge for which they have not yet found an answer. Maybe that's why they often choose to ignore the complaint altogether, omitting it from Shakespeare's biographies. But ignoring it won't make it go away.

On the basis of his signatures, Wayte's complaint, and the known details of Shakespeare's background and financial dealings, doubters like Diana Price have built up a consistent, albeit unflattering, portrait of the man from Stratford. On this reading of the evidence, Shakespeare was a small town boy with a modest education garnered at a rural grammar school, who could read competently but could write only with strain. He was ambitious enough to migrate from his hometown to London, where he fell in with shady characters associated with the interrelated fields of popular theater and petty crime. He lent money at illegally high interest rates, earning tidy profits that were invested in a theatrical company. Eventually he returned to Stratford a wealthy man, and set about buying real estate and making new investments, while continuing to offer loans at high rates. He was a sharp dealer, assiduous in protecting his interests, often litigating against those who failed to repay their loans on time. Local legends described him as a thief, a rascal, and a man with a cruel wit. He had an unhappy marriage to an older woman, to whom he bequeathed only his "second best bed." His two daughters were largely neglected and, like their mother, grew up functionally illiterate. (His older daughter could sign her name with evident difficulty; his younger daughter could only make a mark.)

This portrait has a certain plausibility. There must have been many men like this in Elizabethan times, as there are in any age of social mobility and transition. Shakespeare the grammar school dropout, Shakespeare the ambitious overachiever, Shakespeare the usurer, Shakespeare the man who cut corners and operated on the shady side of the law -- this Shakespeare is a clear, if unappealing, character, as readily apprehended as Langley himself. But where in all this is Shakespeare the artist, Shakespeare the poet, Shakespeare the supreme student of human nature?

If we turn to the plays attributed to Shakespeare, looking for some sign of the Stratford man, the doubters say that we find instead a worldview and a range of knowledge more appropriate to an aristocrat than to a commoner. Nearly all of Shakespeare's plays focus on the nobility and royalty. In marked contrast to most other playwrights of the time, Shakespeare hardly ever deals with the middle class. When he does introduce commoners into his plays, they are presented as figures of fun -- buffoons who misuse words, fall into egregious lapses of logic, and stumble from one humorous catastrophe to the next. Even their names are comical -- Snout, Starveling, Dogberry. As individuals they are good for laughs, but when they cluster together, they are potentially dangerous, because a crowd can all too easily become a mob. Duped by rabble-rousers, the ignorant masses can turn against their betters and threaten the stability of the social order. Harmless yokels when taken singly, they can be a destructive, unpredictable force collectively.

Is this the viewpoint of a writer who is himself of humble origins, a man born and raised in a small farming town, who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through talent and hard work? The doubters don't think so. To them, this is the outlook of aristocrat, someone who looks down on the common people, finding them alternately amusing and troublesome.

Aristocrats of Shakespeare's day were expected to travel abroad, and many of Shakespeare's plays are set on the European continent and show familiarity with the history, geography, and customs of foreign lands. Aristocrats were taught Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish, and Shakespeare's plays demonstrate or imply knowledge of all these languages. Aristocrats spent much of their time at the royal court, and Shakespeare's plays contain many bitter passages about the fickle loyalties of courtiers. Aristocrats sometimes studied law, and Shakespeare's plays are rife with illegal terminology. Aristocrats diverted themselves with the sports of falconry and coursing (hunting with hounds), and Shakespeare's plays abound in references to these pursuits, which were outside the experience of commoners. Aristocrats were exposed to controversial ideas -- the neo-Platonism of Giordano Bruno, the writings of Montaigne -- and Shakespeare's plays encompass such intellectual trends. Aristocrats were also known to go slumming in brothels and taverns, among the prostitutes, lowlifes, and actors, and Shakespeare's plays contain material of this kind, as well -- the only material, some say, that would fit the Stratford man also.

When we look at the works of Shakespeare, a portrait emerges, just as it does when we look at the Stratford man's signatures and business dealings. But the two Shakespeares are different. There is Shakespeare the social climber, the moneylender, the consort of crooks, the litigator, the negligent husband and father, the man who struggled to sign his own name. And there is Shakespeare the poet, the cultured man of sophisticated tastes, widely traveled, fluent in many languages, conversant in the law and in philosophical and scientific ideas, at home at the royal courts or with a falcon perched on his arm.

Again, of course, the orthodox authorities have a riposte for all this. Shakespeare's knowledge has been exaggerated by "Bardolators," people who worship Shakespeare and fail to see the errors in his work. Shakespeare's social views are complex, perhaps even subversive beneath their superficial conservatism -- so argued that Harold Goddard in his two-volume work, The Meaning of Shakespeare. Shakespeare could have learned about life at the royal courts if he had the patronage of an aristocrat such as the Earl of Southampton, to whom his two long narrative poems are dedicated. Perhaps Shakespeare picked up his knowledge of falconry and coursing while in Southampton's company. As for his familiarity with fashionable ideas, all he needed was access to books, which were plentiful in London. Ben Jonson, the son of a bricklayer, was largely self-educated and became one of the most erudite men of his day. Shakespeare did likewise. (For more on the orthodox case, see my essay "Stratford Strikes Back: The Orthodox Rebuttal".)

Personally, I don't think Shakespeare's knowledge looks like book learning. It has the feel, the immediacy, of personal experience -- unlike Jonson's labored and arcane scholarly references. As a fiction writer myself, I know what it's like to write from direct experience and from library research. I've done both. I think I can tell the difference. To me, Shakespeare seems to have been writing from life, not books. His works do not "smell of the lamp" as Jonson's do.

And I'm not so sure that some brief time possibly spent in the company of an earl could account for Shakespeare's prodigious grasp of court intrigue and his obsessive interest in aristocratic pursuits, not to mention his suspicion of the common man.

But I could be wrong. Perhaps Shakespeare of Stratford's rude beginnings and mercenary habits are no obstacle to seeing him as the true author. Genius, as the orthodox side never tires of pointing out, can arise anywhere and baffle all expectations. And in Elizabethan England, many talented young men were forced into playing paradoxical roles in the dramas of their own lives. Most famous is Christopher Marlowe, who -- as presented in Nicholl's The Reckoning -- was a poet-spy, simultaneously depending on and betraying his aristocratic patron, penning brilliant dramas while informing on his friends, posing as an "atheist" provocateur while spying on those of genuinely atheistic inclinations -- and yet perhaps secretly an atheist all along. In short, Marlowe was a bundle of contradictions, and he himself may have been unsure of who he really was or what -- if anything -- he believed.

Was Shakespeare a similarly complex and self-contradictory figure -- both litigator and poet, opportunist and aesthete, ruthless businessman and great-souled artist? Could the same man have been both Shylock and Hamlet?

We may never know. The truth may have disappeared forever, in lost manuscripts and discarded documents, leaving us with only a mystery.

Shakespeare himself may have foreshadowed his own end. When Banquo, seeing the three witches disappear, asks Macbeth, "Whither are they vanished?", Macbeth gives an answer that may apply to his own creator, as well:

Into the air; and what seemed corporal, melted

As breath into the wind.


Sources for all three essays, and additional resources for study

A vast amount of material on the authorship question and related issues is available on the Internet and in bookstores and libraries. Here's a small sample:

---- Web sites (orthodox) ----

Alan H. Nelson -- orthodox site containing reviews of the doubters' books and other useful info and links (Nelson is the author of Monstrous Adversary, an unflattering look at the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere)

Shakespeare authorship page -- defending the orthodox view

---- Web sites (Oxfordian) ----

Nina Green -- interesting but overreaching Oxfordian site that seems to ascribe most extant Elizabethan literature to Edward de Vere

J. Thomas Looney's seminal Oxfordian work "Shakespeare" Identified can be read online in its entirety here

Luminarium -- information on de Vere, and many links

Shakespeare Oxford Society Home Page -- defending de Vere

Shakespeare Fellowship page -- large collection of resources for de Vere boosters

---- Web sites (Derbyite) ----

The URL of Derby -- enthusiastic defense of William Stanley's claim on the Shakespearean canon

Carl O. Nordling -- another Derbyite site with some interesting arguments, especially regarding an early German version of Hamlet

---- Web sites (Marlovian) ----

John Baker -- making the case for Christopher Marlowe

Peter Farey -- surprisingly scholarly defense of Marlowe as Shakespeare

---- Web sites (Baconian) ----

Baconian evidence page -- Web site putting forward Sir Francis Bacon as the "true" author

---- Web sites (general anti-Stratfordian) ----

BardWeb -- discussion and links

Candidates for authorship -- summary of information on various authorship candidates, including Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, and Roger Manners.

Diana Price -- excellent Web site by the author of Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography

Mark Twain's "Is Shakespeare Dead?" is still the wittiest exposition of the "anti-Stratfordian" view; it can be read online here

----- Books (orthodox) -----

Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare -- contains a chapter critical of the "anti-Stratfordian" position

Ian Wilson, Shakespeare: The Evidence -- strictly orthodox presentation of documentary evidence of Shakespeare's life

---- Books (anti-Stratfordian) ----

John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare? -- survey of various candidates for the role of the "real" Shakespeare; much good information, though I find his conclusion (group authorship) untenable

Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare -- massive, comprehensive assault on orthodoxy and defense of de Vere; mixture of strong and weak arguments in a readable, though somewhat overly combative, style

Charlton Ogburn, The Man Who Was Shakespeare: A Summary of the Case Unfolded in the Mysterious William Shakespeare -- Ogburn's short, pamphlet-style summary of his longer magnum opus; excellent introduction to his views

Diana Price, Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography -- provocative and well-researched (though sometimes tendentious) rethinking of the Stratford man's life and times

Joseph Sobran, Alias Shakespeare -- lively book interpreting the Sonnets as evidence of a homosexual relationship between de Vere and the Earl of Southampton

Richard Whalen, Shakespeare: Who Was He? -- solid introduction to the Oxfordian position

----- Books (other) ----

Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare -- sensitive study of Shakespeare's complete works; no consideration of any authorship debate

William Ingram, A London Life in the Brazen Age: Francis Langley 1548-1602 -- biography of the moneylender, extortionist, and entrepreneur who was associated with Shakespeare

Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits -- highly readable discussion of the Gunpowder Plot and its relevance to Macbeth; no mention of the authorship debate


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